Princeton University is world-renowned. Our endowment, at $23.8 billion in 2017, is bigger than the GDP of Iceland in 2016. Our students are increasingly diverse and hail from all 50 states and many different countries. Our alumni include presidents, astronauts, authors, and royalty.
Yet, even at a school with so many resources, students aren’t always making the effort to engage critically with the world around them. Specifically, very few students study abroad during their four years at Princeton. Why is this the case?
A few caveats, before discussing this issue any further. With “study abroad,” I define this term as an accredited, academic program of study during either the academic year or summer. This necessarily excludes other important overseas experiences, such as Bridge Year, working abroad through the International Internship Program, or conducting thesis research abroad. Furthermore, the Office of International Programs is quite understandably reticent to give out official statistics on study abroad at Princeton. However, through other data sources, I found that Princeton was nowhere near the top 25 schools in study abroad participation.
There are many different impediments to studying abroad. For some, attending Princeton is the top priority. Even professors have been heard to discourage studying abroad since “you’re already at the top university in the world, so why go elsewhere?” For others, the cost can be prohibitive, although the University does cover most fees with financial aid. Importantly, many students may also worry about studying abroad based upon their own identity. Studying abroad as a straight, white male connotes certain privileges that may elude individuals in under-privileged groups — minorities, LGBT, differently abled, low socioeconomic status, etc. Finally, junior year is very significant for undergraduate social life. Between joining eating clubs to declaring one’s major, many students find their niche right at the time when they could be studying abroad.
Social psychology offers some theories as to why the above obstacles have decreased the rates of studying abroad. For example, undergraduate students can be extremely ambiguity-averse. Many would rather participate in the routine academic and social calendar of the University than the uncertain life they would face overseas. Furthermore, we know that people like to follow their peers and feel like they fit in. Thus, since so few people are studying abroad, this has become a self-reinforcing cycle, in which the norm of a “typical student’s experience” excludes studying abroad.
Of course, the challenges listed above are not a full accounting of all potential obstacles. But given the extensive benefits — including language exposure, gaining a global perspective, and improving employability prospects, among others — I believe it is the University’s responsibility to encourage studying abroad.
First of all, I propose that the University makes studying abroad an opt-out decision. That is, the University should think about making the default option studying abroad, particularly for concentrations that touch on international affairs, such as Politics, Woodrow Wilson, any of the regional studies majors, and language certificate programs. As such, students would have to intentionally choose not to study abroad, and University systems would be reset such that study abroad is the new normal.
There is some evidence that changing the default option can influence decision-making behavior. For example, in a seminal study on organ donation, Eric J. Johnson and Daniel Goldstein found that making donation the default increased participation by 16.3%. In the University’s case, by creating a new reference point, students would expend less cognitive effort worrying about the uncertainties of study abroad. Rather, students would hopefully change from not wanting to “miss out on Princeton” to not wanting to “lose out” on the experience of being overseas. Moreover, they can rely upon the credibility of Princeton to know that the University is setting a good default option for them. And there is precedent for this decision. For evidence, one must only remember 2016, when the University created a new default by changing from opt-in to mandatory pre-orientation programs for all first-years.
I would also create a broad campaign, including posters and emails, to change perceptions of what kinds of students study abroad. Researchers at the University of Pittsburgh found that many students who study abroad scored high on indicators of academic motivation, i.e. the desire to work hard, do things well, and take on academic challenges. Thus, reframing study abroad as something that the smartest, most motivated University students do could incentivize students who like to take on challenges and strive to emulate their accomplished peers.
Finally, I would suggest arranging support groups for under-privileged students studying abroad. Many Princetonians may never have left the United States or had a passport before coming to college, which makes study abroad an even more life-changing experience. However, it is important to recognize the different challenges that a diverse set of students faces when studying abroad and to provide those students with the appropriate support channels.
It will take time to see if these policies work to change the norms surrounding the Princeton college experience, unless the University decides to fully mandate study abroad programs. Measuring study abroad rates before and after these policy changes, and seeing how results play out by race, ethnicity, socioeconomic status, ability, and nationality would be the most helpful markers of success. But particularly now, in an era of political leadership in which nationalism and xenophobia run rampant, empowering a generation of young people to go and see the world for themselves is more important than ever. I truly believe this could be one important step towards fulfilling the University’s updated motto more fully: “in the nation’s service, and in the service of humanity.”
Abyssinia Lissanu is a graduate student at the Woodrow Wilson School for Public and International Affairs from Somerset, Ky. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.